A brilliant battle of wills drives Captain Phillips

The brilliant battle of wills that drives Paul Greengrass’ white-knuckle drama CAPTAIN PHILLIPS makes it one of the films of the year.

Director Paul Greengrass has quite simply brought us one of the films of the year with CAPTAIN PHILLIPS and in Tom Hanks‘ superlative performance in the title role, you have my choice for the ‘Best Actor’ Oscar in March.

But whilst the film shows one of Hanks’ most incredible screen performances (I’d heard about the last 10 minutes and believe me, it’s jaw-droppingly phenomenal acting), it isn’t just a one-man show. Barkhad Abdi, who plays Phillips’ nemesis the pirate captain Muse, gives us a superb portrayal of a man whose life is almost out of his control, forcing him into situations he may not choose before. This allows the movie to be a brilliant battle of wills between two men from vastly different backgrounds because they both possess equal steely resolve.

Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips

Tom Hanks is Captain Richard Phillips

They clashed to striking effect off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when Muse and three other men from his community (Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Ali – all first-rate) set off to capture a ship for the local warlord who ran their village and their lives. The prize they chose was the Maersk Alabama, a huge container ship travelling around the horn of Africa and captained by Richard Phillips. With a crew of 20, all seasoned merchant mariners, this was to be just another long haul for them but when Phillips’ anxiety about possible pirate attacks turns into very real alarm at the sight of two rapidly approaching skiffs on the radar, everything changes.

Suddenly the man who we’ve seen at the start of the film be firm but fair with his wife (a small but nuanced cameo by the always excellent Catherine Keener) when discussing their children’s schooling and then more sternly deal with his crew when they raise union concerns and safety on the voyage just after they put to sea, becomes a different character when the Somalis board the ship. He’s pleasant, even jovial and will do anything to keep his crew safe and get the intruders back on their way as soon as possible.

Hanks is wonderful here, as Phillips tries to use all his years of knowledge to keep his men from getting hurt – you see his will not to give in, which will be painful to watch later when he admits he wishes he was anywhere than where he is. Muse doesn’t buy Phillips’ friendly help, he knows there’s something he’s concealing and he keeps the pressure on the captain to try and wear him down. This battle is what Greengrass has described as ‘the heart of the drama’ and from the moment these two characters meet to the movie’s conclusion, it’s fascinating stuff.

Brakhad Abdi in Captain Phillips

Barkhad Abdi is Somali pirate Muse

Phillips thinks he’s found a way out for everyone when he suggests the Somalis take the contents of the ship’s safe and leave in its lifeboat but this seemingly clever plan only leads to an increasingly desperate series of events in the film’s second half, where he’s taken hostage and you move to the absolute edge of your seat, glued as to how it’s all going to pan out. Like Greengrass’ exemplary 9/11 drama United 93, just because the movie is about a true story and you know the ending, doesn’t mean what you’re watching can’t grip you.

This is illustrated by the locked-on eye contact between Hanks and Abdi in every scene they’re in – whether there’s dialogue or silence – and it’s riveting. Greengrass and his director of photography, the terrific Barry Ackroyd who shot The Hurt Locker and United 93, give us fluid camera moves that show great distance and extreme close-up, pushing and pulling us as the drama unfolds.

The screenplay (based on Phillips’ book) by the fantastic Billy Ray is taut and top-notch and the music by Henry Jackman is one of the best film scores I’ve heard used to such striking effect to underpin the action since Hans Zimmer’s terrific ones for Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Trilogy. Also of course, in any Greengrass picture, you have a truly high calibre supporting cast and here the other key members of the Maersk crew are superbly played by Corey Johnson, Michael Chernus, David Warshofksy and Chris Mulkey, with other notable contributions from Yul Vazquez as the Navy warship captain and Max Martini as the SEAL commander.

You leave the cinema a little wrung out after watching CAPTAIN PHILLIPS, trying to catch your breath and return to some kind of equilibrium but those are good side effects when the film you’ve just watched is as thrilling and important as this.